You might find this book under the title “October Sky” (an anagram), because that’s the name of of the movie they made from it in 1999. When the movie came out, Ballantine published the book in paperback form and renamed it. I was shocked to find that out, because if I were ever to write a book, I would never let anyone change the name.
The book was written by Homer H. Hickam, Jr., who was born and grew up in the tiny mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. Current population: about 900, but I’m sure it was much larger when the mine was operative–it was closed in 1982. The nearest “big city” is Bluefield. Current population: just over 10,000.
The book is a memoir, and like all memoirs, it can’t be called great literature, but it’s well done regardless. You have the feeling that Hickam is sitting in your living room telling you a story. It’s conversational. You want to raise your hand to ask a question–it feels just that personal.
Hickam says in the book that you can divide his life into two parts: everything that happened before October 5th, 1957, and everything that happened afterwards. Because that date is when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. And I actually remember this. Because one night I was standing outside with my parents. I looked up and said, (in today’s vernacular), OMG, a star is moving! I can’t tell you how much this scared me. Since in my previous experience, stars didn’t move, it never occurred to me that one could fall on you. My parents laughed at me and said, that isn’t a star, it’s Sputnik. What is Sputnik? It’s a sort of satellite. What is a satellite? You get the picture. I was seven years old, and was still at the stage of wanting to know why we called sky blue and grass green. Who decided that, I wanted to know?
But Hickam was about 14, and decides he wants to build a rocket. It’s still a mystery why. There are hints that he just wanted to do something unique. He had a difficult relationship with his father, who thought he wasn’t good for anything, and lavished all his attention on Homer’s older brother, a big football star. There were patriotic overtones (the Russians beat us! We can’t let that happen.) And there is a big dose of growing up as a boy, and how fun it is to get into trouble and blow stuff up.
The getting in trouble part is of course never intentional, but it’s inevitable. Homer, along with a few friends, forms the BCMA, the Bitter Creek Missile Agency, Bitter Creek being the name of their high shcool. When they launch their first rocket, they set it on top of Homer’s mother’s rose garden fence, with fabulous results. Flames shoot into the sky. Except those flames are not from the “rocket”. They are from the fence. They blew the fence to Kingdom Come while the rocket imbedded itself in the ground. Proper fuel would continue to be elusive to the Rocket Boys.
But a funny thing happens. Homer has been a lackluster student who is just getting by, but he’s found something that engages him. A kid who barely made it through algebra teaches himself calculus. He has found an interest that he can’t be swayed from, no matter how much ridicule he has to endure. And here’s the good part: after many detours, he grows up to become an engineer for NASA.
I’m not really even scratching the surface of the book here. There is much more to it, such as his hilarious description of losing his virginity. I actually burst into tears the first time I read about one of their rockets successfully surpassing their wildest dreams of altitude.
But I’ll leave you with the last line of the book, which I personally think is sad and misguided: “Even now, Coalwood endures, and no one, not careless industry or overzealous government can ever completely destroy it–not while we who once lived there may recall our life among its places or especially remember rockets that once leapt into the air, propelled not by physics, but by the vibrant love of an honorable people, and the instruction of a dear teacher, and the dreams of boys”.